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During this lesson, we look at one of Chekhov’s most famous plays, ‘The Cherry Orchard.’ After a brief overview of the characters, we examine the events in the play and analyze the play’s main themes. A short quiz follows.

Introduction to Chekhov & the Play

Anton Chekhov was a famous Russian playwright and short story writer during the last half of the 19th century. The Cherry Orchard is one of his most famous plays and is also the last.Interestingly enough, Anton Chekhov intended for The Cherry Orchard to be a comedy, but the director staged it as a tragedy. The subject matter of the play is heavy, but there are comical elements, especially in regards to Madame Ranevskaya’s brother’s addiction to billiards.Another interesting fact about the play is that it is the only play in which Anton Chekhov included a gun but never had the gun fired.

You may have heard about Chekhov’s gun, a dramatic principle which states that every single item put into a play or story should have relevance. Therefore, a playwright should never introduce a gun into a play if he doesn’t intend for it to go off at some point. Filmmakers still adhere to the Chekhov’s gun rule today, though Chekhov himself broke his own rule in The Cherry Orchard.There are three groups of characters in this play: the Gayev family, their friends, and their servants.

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Character Group: The Gayev Family

Madame Lyubov Andreievna Ranevskaya owns the family estate with the cherry orchard on it. She is depressed about the death of her son five years earlier and has been living in Paris with a lover who does not treat her well.

After Ranevskaya attempts suicide, her youngest daughter, Anya, 17, travels to Paris to bring her mother back to the family estate. Anya is a good person and loves Trofimov, her deceased brother’s tutor.Ranevskaya has a second daughter, Varya, 27, who is adopted. The play never explains why Ranevskaya adopted Varya, which is odd because it would have been unusual for an aristocrat to adopt a child at the time. Varya is very religious and controlling, and she acts as a housekeeper for the estate.Ranevskaya also has a brother, Leonid Andreieveitch Gayev, who is funny and addicted to billiards, which is an example of the luxuries of the aristocrat class.

Character Group: Friends

Peter Trofimov is a perpetual student, into left-wing politics, and Anya’s love interest.

He also tutored Ranevskaya’s deceased son, so his presence is hard for her to handle sometimes.Ranevskaya’s other friends include Boris Borisovich Simenov-Pischik, another landowner, and Yermolai Alexeievitch Lopakhin, a merchant who was formerly from the lower class.

Character Group: Servants

Charlotta Ivanovna is the Gayevs’ governess. She watches out for Anya.

As the daughter of circus performers, she entertains the Gayevs’ guests by performing card tricks.Other servant-class characters include Yepikhodov, a clerk; Yasha, an unpleasant and rude young manservant; Dunyasha, a maid who is in love with Yasha and originally was a peasant; and Firs, an old manservant who is nostalgic for the days of serfdom.In addition to the characters in these three main groups, there is also an unnamed character who interrupts the Gayevs’ party in Act III and a vagrant who asks for money during Act II.

Play Summary: Act I

The play takes place on Ranevskaya’s ancestral estate in Russia. After the death of her son, Ranevskaya moved to Paris, but she has returned to the estate at the behest of her youngest daughter, Anya, after Ranevskaya tries to commit suicide.It turns out that both the estate and the cherry orchard are being auctioned off to pay debts. While at the estate, Ranevskaya runs into her dead son’s former tutor, Peter Trofimov, and the meeting stirs up her grief.

After she exits the stage, Anya tells her older, adopted sister, Varya, that their mother is in debt. In Act I, it is suggested that the cherry orchard should be cut down to build cottages to make money for the family, but the idea is dismissed.

Play Summary: Act II

Act II opens several months later.

It is now the middle of summer and the characters are in a cherry orchard. The beginning of Act II concerns the love triangle between Yepihodov, Dunyasha, and Yasha. Yepihodov loves Dunyasha, who loves Yasha, who toys with Dunyasha’s feelings. Everyone leaves when they hear Ranevskaya coming.Ranevskaya is talking to Gayev, her brother, and Lopakhin, the merchant, about the fate of the orchard. Her daughters appear, along with the tutor, Trofimov. They are joking about Trofimov’s perpetual studies when a vagrant interrupts, asking for money.

Ranevskaya gives him all the money she has at the moment. Anya suggests that she and Trofimov leave her family behind and start a new life. The idea of cutting down the cherry orchard is suggested again in Act II.

Play Summary: Act III

Act III skips ahead again, this time to the end of August. Ranevskaya is having one last party before the estate is auctioned off. Everyone is tense, despite lots of drinking, dancing, and card tricks being performed.

During a moment alone, Trofimov tells Ranevskaya that she must face the truth about the sale of the estate and the loss of the cherry orchard. They fight, especially when Ranevskaya informs Trofimov that she is considering going back to her lover in Paris, who treated her badly, because he is now sick and has asked for her.After Trofimov falls down the stairs offstage, he and Ranevskaya reconcile. Anya announces that the cherry orchard has been sold. It turns out that Lopakhin bought the estate and intends to chop down the cherry orchard. Ranevskaya is devastated.

Play Summary: Act IV

Act IV begins, like Act I, in the nursery.

The family is packing up to leave their ancestral home. Lopakhin has already begun having the cherry orchard leveled, even though the family is still packing. When Anya yells at him, Lopakhin realizes his callousness and halts the destruction temporarily. Everyone leaves except the old servant, Firs, who has been boarded up in the house by mistake.

Firs lies down on the couch and waits for death as the sound of axes cutting down the cherry orchard begins again.

Analysis: Theme of Social Mobility

In 1861, Alexander II emancipated serfs, or unpaid workers, in Russia. The Cherry Orchard deals heavily with the theme of social mobility. Ranevskaya’s family estate, including the cherry orchard, is auctioned off during the play to pay off familial debt. Without serfs, she cannot afford the expenses of the estate. Ranevskaya is an example of downward social mobility.The estate is purchased by Lopakhin, who is currently the wealthiest character in the play.

He used to be part of the lower class, but due to shifting social circumstances, including the emancipation of the serfs, Lopakhin has gained both status and wealth and is now able to buy property that once would have been inaccessible to him. Dunyasha is another example of upward social mobility. She used to be a peasant, but now she is a housemaid for a family that was once well-to-do. Her bolstered status is obvious from the way she flirts openly with Yasha, which she would never do if she were just a peasant.

Analysis: Motif of the Cherry Orchard

The cherry orchard on Ranevskaya’s estate is famous due to its size.

It is the epitome of aristocratic indulgence, since it has little to no actual value. In fact, it is a drain on their resources, because the land is worth more without the orchard, since it could be built upon.The idea of cutting down the orchard is brought up several times in the play. The first time it is mentioned is in Act I when a suggestion is made to build cottages on the land. Although the cherry orchard is just part of the family’s estate, it represents the entire estate. After the estate is auctioned off and the demolition of the cherry orchard begins, the sound of the chopping axes coming from offstage emphasizes the extent of the loss Ranevskaya and her family have experienced.

Lesson Summary

The Cherry Orchard was the last play Anton Chekhov wrote.

It is also the only play in which he included a gun that is not later fired. The play is about the theme of social mobility after the abolition of serfdom, and the cherry orchard is the main motif through which the changing social classes are examined in detail, since the aristocratic family has to auction it off to pay their debts, and the newly rich middle-class character is finally able to afford it.Each act focuses on the interactions of Ranevskaya, her family, their friends, and their servants as the family estate is sold at auction. At the end of the play, the cherry orchard is leveled. The loss of the orchard devastates Ranevskaya.

Lesson at a Glance

Playwright Anton Chekhov’s last play was The Cherry Orchard. There are three character groups in this play, all revolving around the estate and its cherry orchard. The themes involve social mobility and the motif of the cherry orchard.

The chopping of the cherry orchard represents the loss Ranevskaya and her family have experienced.
cherry orchard

Learning Outcomes

Discover your capacity to accomplish these goals after finishing the lesson:

  • Identify Anton Chekhov
  • Expound upon the three character groups highlighted in Chekov’s play The Cherry Orchard
  • Analyze the acts of the play
  • Examine the play’s theme and motif

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